Andy Bockelman: ‘Thunder’ is a comedy hurricane, on film and in real life response
August 25, 2008
Not every movie can prominently feature an actor who can refer to himself in the fourth person, but the spoof “Tropic Thunder” nails its target handily.
Director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is at his wit’s end; the filming of his Vietnam War movie, “Tropic Thunder” has been an unmitigated disaster.
All the on-set turmoil is caused by the high-profile actors attached to the project – fledgling action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), flatulence-specializing comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and intensive Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) have made Cockburn and the studio the laughingstocks of Hollywood with their outrageous demands and controversial behavior.
At the suggestion of “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), the autobiographer of “Tropic Thunder,” the filmmaker decides to exile the prima donnas in the jungles of Southeast Asia to force some humility into them, and hopefully film some of their tribulations. The band of clueless actors run into a slight change of plans when they cross paths with a treacherous drug cartel quartered in the area, and they are pushed into real combat.
Stiller is at his comedic best as Speedman, a lone wolf looking to get back in the good graces of the public after his recent debacle, “Simple Jack,” a horrendous tearjerker about a mentally-challenged farm boy. Black seems to be shooting for a Chris Farley impression as the funnyman of the group, who spends most of the film experiencing heroin withdrawal.
Downey is the absolute limit as blond, blue-eyed Lazarus, who takes his devotion to acting so far that he receives surgical treatments – injections of soy sauce, apparently – to obtain the necessary skin tone to play an African-American sergeant. This is much to the annoyance of rookie actor/rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who can barely keep himself from decking the master thespian as he keeps up the unintentionally stereotypical stylings.
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Jay Baruchel is a hoot as Kevin Sandusky, the only actor among them who actually stays in touch with reality, as well as being the only one to have read the movie’s script.
Countless celebrities pop up in cameos, but two of the more critical are Matthew McConaughey as Speedman’s devoted agent and a certain Hollywood heavy hitter, nearly unrecognizable as a bald, paunchy, bespectacled studio executive who could shout down Mussolini.
Stiller’s first directorial effort since “Zoolander” not only creates the same kind of crazed atmosphere that surrounded the title male model – whom he also portrayed – but enhances it to astronomical proportions. Tinseltown gets a shotgun blast to the face in this extreme satire, which is so deliberate in its lampooning of the movie industry that it requires a step back to fully appreciate.
The most unmistakable of these issues is Downey’s chameleon schtick – yes, it is the same as blackface, but the intent behind it is constructive in breaking down the restrictions imposed upon society by the forces of political correctness. Stiller and company are not trying to enforce racism and the like, rather they are attempting to expose the foibles of such attitudes and the inevitable counter-productivity of its opponents, many of whom will undoubtedly race to the picket lines for this feature, anyway.
Even these detractors will have to admit the skillfulness of Stiller as he pays homage to war classics such as “Platoon,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Bridge on the River Kwai” and more.
“Tropic Thunder” storms with laughs.
The custom-made trailers at the opening set the tone for joviality, cluing audiences in to the “talents” of Speedman, Portnoy and Lazarus – “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown” (Tagline: “Who left the fridge open?”), “The Fatties: Fart 2” (sound familiar, Eddie Murphy?), and “Satan’s Alley” (think “Brokeback Mountain” in a monastery with Tobey Maguire).
And of course, don’t forget to pick up Alpa Chino’s promotional energy drink, “Booty Sweat,” which has actually found its way into stores after a novelty campaign.